You can begin class with a moment of “First Thoughts,” free writing done in silence for just a few minutes about any thought that comes to mind; it is private and never shared. (I do it with them.) If you like, you can then give them a prompt in relation to the reading for that day. Students can read or summarize their response to the prompt to begin discussion. This simple process helps the students to relax and get to work.
Invite the students to do some reflective writing about their essay topics. Take a quiet moment (5-10 minutes) to answer these questions: Why am I drawn to this topic? What do I expect to learn in the process? What concerns do I have about the work? At the completion of the written assignment, give them five minutes to reflect: What am I proud of? What surprised me in this process? What do I wish I could have added? The Capacities (create, engage, inquiry, research, communication) clearly connect to these writing prompts.
Student writers tend to be hesitant to make assertions in their drafts. I ask them to locate and revise all of the “seems/perhaps/maybe/kind of” parts of the draft and to replace unnecessary instances of passive voice with active voice in order to communicate their ideas more effectively. This activity is culturally-specific as many Americans tend to favor assertiveness in academic essays, so you should, of course, adjust to your expectations and their academic history
When discussing any text, idea, or image, ask the students to write a list of descriptions about what they observe. Then, they list the insights or inquiries they have about those observations. Finally, ask the students to come up with an argument emerging from their observations and insights. It’s useful to share their results at each stage, and it’s good practice for them to learn to develop a precise and persuasive argument or thesis statement.
After reading a text, the students can come up with a list of their agreements and their disagreements with particular points. They could also do research to back up their claims in this activity. If they do this work in groups, they should return to the class and report on their list.
Take two texts and ask the students to make a list of their favorite five lines from each author. Then, pair the students and have them create a conversation using the two texts in a dialogue. As the students make connections between the texts, they will observe how authors write about a topic in differing or similar ways. Invite the students return to the class to read their conversations out loud.
Students tend to write in generalities in their introductions and conclusions. Introductions, I tell them, are often finger-warmers, and in revision, they may find their thesis at the end of the draft. Conclusions, too, are often general summaries, yet students can use them to ask the questions that they haven’t answered in the body of the essay. Conclusions should be a place for further thoughts.
Organize the students into groups to come up with contemporary examples to prove (or disprove) an author’s point or overall argument. It’s a straightforward way to make almost any text relevant to their personal engagement with a text, their particular academic disciplines, or their fields of inquiry.
Ask the students to write about something that they believed they had understood well at first; then, ask them to write about how they realized that they had not understood this thing (a person, idea, place, object, etc.) clearly—or at all. It’s good to share their writing. The students learn to recognize the importance of being open to new ideas and to revising their assumptions. (Jane Tompkins’s writing gave me the idea for this exercise.)
Invite the students to find one beautiful or powerful sentence in a text. The students copy the sentence, then draw or map the sentence’s structure. Ask the students to share their examples and explain how the form of the sentence reflects upon its content. This exercise also serves to engage them with grammar lessons.